Hayrides, football games, pumpkin patches, and corn mazes…fall traditions create fun family memories. A favorite autumn adventure—apple picking—sometimes perplexes parents, though. How can I tell if the apple is ripe? What varieties are good for pie? Do I really need to stand in line for 1-1/2 hours for apple cider doughnuts—are they THAT good? Don’t worry—we have apple picking tips for you. (Plus a recipe for delicious doughnuts so you can avoid the lines!)
Like most families, one of our autumn traditions includes a visit to a nearby apple orchard. It’s a beautiful orchard in the North Carolina mountains, with gorgeous views of perfectly aligned trees following the natural dips and curves of the land. Since our first outing years ago to Sky Top Orchard, apparently every family in South and North Carolina discovered its existence. The orchard is now a madhouse of parking lot directors and bewildered parents, stumbling along, trying to find a row of trees that hasn’t been picked clean.
But still, every year, we go. It’s tradition. Plus, there’s the draw of apple cider doughnuts. (I’ll get to that in a minute.)
1. Apple Picking Tips: Pick a Flavor.
Obviously, the point of heading to the apple orchard involves apples. It’s hard not to get distracted with cute farm animals, corn mazes, and fall festivities, which most orchards offer for family fun.
However, if you’re like me, you’re also looking to stock up on perfect, healthy fruit…which can be transformed into unhealthy but delicious apple pies.
It’s all about the apples, right?
Before you head out into the orchard, ask your family: which do you prefer, sweet or tart? Sugary or tangy? An orchard can stretch for acres, and by deciding your taste preferences, you can head out in the right direction to search for your favorite apples.
After all, little legs can tire quickly and turn a fun apple picking outing into a meltdown, fast. Plan ahead.
Ask the farmer what’s available, and also ask for recommendations, based on what the orchard offers. There are hundreds of apple varieties, from heirlooms to newly introduced hybrids, and most orchards offer samples for you to taste before you pick. If you’re looking for sweet varieties for eating fresh, try Fuji, Gala, Golden Russet, Stellar, and Pink Lady. For a nice balance of sweet and tart, try Jonagold, HoneyCrisp, Cameo, and Mutsu. For lovers of tart apples, Melrose, Goldrush, and Granny Smith will make you pucker.
2. Apple Picking Tips: Pick a Purpose.
It’s easy to decide which apples to pick based on your taste buds, but what if you want to select ones to make a perfect pie?
Look for apples that hold their shape well when baked, like Melrose, Stayman Winesap, Jonalicious, Jonagold, Cortland, Golden Delicious, and Baldwin. Personally, I like to use several varieties when baking a pie, giving it a more complex flavor.
Want to make applesauce for the kids? Choose varieties like Cameo, Cortland, Fuji, Gala, Granny Smith, Honeycrisp, McIntosh, Pink Lady, or Stayman—or a blend. If you’re new to canning, check out this excellent resource from Ball Canning Jars.
If you’re perplexed about how many apples to pick, consider this: one bushel provides enough apples for between 12-15 quarts of applesauce, while eight medium apples are perfect for a 9-inch pie.
3. Apple Picking Tips: Call Ahead.
If there are certain varieties you want for specific purposes, call ahead. Different apple varieties ripen at different times throughout the season. Some are very early and may be finished by the time you head to the orchard in October, while others ripen late in the season. (Also, not all orchards accept credit/debit cards. Ask when you call so you’ll have cash available, if needed.)
Many orchards post a harvest schedule on their websites, allowing you to see what’s available. If you’re not picky, just head to the orchard and ask the farmers what’s ripe. Typically, apple varieties not ready for harvest are noted with a sign or even “caution” tape.
4. Apple Picking Tips: Take the Wagon.
When you first head out with your excited kids, ready to race through the orchard and play hide-and-seek in the rows of trees, it seems like hauling a wagon along will be a burden. But trust me on this. After a few hours of running up hills, rolling down hills, and gathering apples, you’ll find that those excited kiddos are less than excited to trudge back to the barn carrying their baskets filled with apples.
Instead of juggling your basket, their baskets, and probably a sleepy toddler or two…take the wagon. You’ll be grateful for it, I promise. Most orchards provide wagons or carts, but if you’re visiting a crowded orchard during peak season, you may want to take your own.
5. Apple Picking Tips: Is it Ripe?
Just in case you’re not a botanist or horticulturist, here are a few tips to know about picking the perfect apples:
- Apples ripen in stages on a tree, with the apples in the outer branches ripening before those growing on the inner portion of the tree. Look for fruit that’s firm and bruise-free—it will last longer.
- Don’t be tempted to sneak into the roped-off sections of the orchard to pick apples that aren’t ready. Apples don’t continue to ripen once picked.
- Color isn’t a great indicator for whether an apple is ripe, since there are so many varieties and colors. However, generally, you’ll see a change in color as the fruit ripens and becomes somewhat more vibrant. Test the apple by squeezing it gently between your thumb and index finger. You should feel a bit of give—without it feeling mushy.
- Taste is the best ripeness test. Try one of the just-picked apples to taste whether it’s ready before you begin filling your baskets.
(NOTE: Most orchards open for apple picking are not organic, unfortunately. Before you eat an apple in the field, wash it—even a rinse with your water bottle is a good idea to remove pesticide.)
6. Apple Picking Tips: Twist, Don’t Tug.
I know it can be a challenge to keep kids from yanking on apples…but let them know that if they need to pull hard, the apple most likely isn’t going to be tasty. A ripe apple should separate from the branch fairly easily with an upward twist of the apple and a gentle pull.
Try to keep the stems on the apples, too. They’ll last longer in storage.
If you happen to drop an apple or two when picking, they’re perfectly fine. Pick them up and add them to your basket.
7. Apple Picking Tips: Apples Are Not Basketballs.
I know it’s tempting for kids to see who can make a long shot or hit the target when harvesting apples, but unless you want some nasty, bruised apples that turn to mush in a few weeks—don’t. Place the apples gently in the basket.
8. Apple Picking Tips: Store for Later
Once home with your harvest, you’ll want to make it last. Apple longevity varies according to variety. However, a good general storage guide is to keep the apples in a cool space, like the refrigerator, basement, or cellar. However, don’t store apples and potatoes together. As potatoes age, they release ethylene gas, which will make the apples spoil faster.
Also, store apples unwashed, which will help them last longer. Wash them just prior to use.
9.Apple Picking Tips: Savor the Doughnuts.
Apple picking is all about the apples—or is it? In our family, it’s almost equally about the doughnuts.
Oh. The doughnuts…
Besides the cute goats and fall feels, the lure of the doughnuts entice even our teenager to get out of bed. Crispy, warm, just-fried dough bliss encased in cinnamon and sugar…I live for those traditional fall treats. I know. They’re pure badness. There’s not one healthy crumb in these doughnuts. The napkins quickly fall apart with the doughnut’s grease, and the excessive sugar makes my teeth feel furry. But for all of their unhealthy qualities, there’s nothing so blissful as eating a hot apple cider doughnut while overlooking the hills and valleys as they show off their fall style.
On our last visit, the line for these delicacies stretched along the parking lot, curving past trees, seemingly endless. OK, that’s an exaggeration. The wait wasn’t endless.
It was 1-1/2 hours.
Instead, our sweaty, cranky crew carried our healthy apples and cider to the car, and we left.
But I kept thinking about those doughnuts.
Apple Picking Tips Bonus: Apple Cider Doughnut Recipe.
Perhaps I became a tad obsessed with our missed doughnuts. I decided to blend a few recipes I found online, adding more spice here and a tweak there.
Here’s the thing: if you’re going to be bad, then be REALLY bad. Nothing says badness like eating sugary fried dough right before bedtime, right? Yes, we made doughnuts at 9:30 p.m. But it was fun.
Before we begin, know this: your kitchen will be grossly, disgustingly greasy. Prior to the doughnuts, I’d never deep-fried anything, because I have an odd aversion to cleaning up grease. Bacon grease is challenging enough for me. My pathological need for these doughnuts turned me into a deep frying fool. And it was just as nasty to clean as I feared.
But the doughnuts were worth it.
Apple Cider Doughnuts
1 cup apple cider
3-1/2 cup flour (keep the bag handy to add flour to the cookie sheets)
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
½ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. nutmeg
4 tbsp. butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
½ cup buttermilk
Vegetable shortening for frying
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
2 tbsp. apple cider
1 cup granulated sugar
2 tbsp. cinnamon
- Pour 1 cup apple cider into small sauce pan. Using medium heat, reduce cider to approximately ¼ cup, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and allow to cool.
- In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, salt, and nutmeg. Set aside.
- In a separate bowl, add butter and granulated sugar, beating with electric mixer until smooth. Add eggs and continue to beat until incorporated.
- Reducing the speed to low, add the apple cider and buttermilk.
- Add the flour mixture and mix on low until dough forms.
- Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and coat with flour. Turn dough onto one sheet, sprinkling the top with flour. (The dough will be sticky.) Using your hands, flatten the dough to ½-inch thickness. Place the baking sheet with dough in the freezer for 20 minutes until firm.
- Remove dough from freezer. Using a 3-inch round cookie or doughnut cutter, cut doughnuts. Use a 1-inch round cutter to cut holes. Place the shapes on the second baking sheet, and place in the freezer for another 20 minutes to firm. (You can reuse the dough scraps to make more doughnuts.)
- Prepare your toppings. For the glaze, whisk together the confectioners’ sugar and cider until smooth. For the sugar topping, blend the cinnamon and granulated sugar well. Set toppings aside.
- Add shortening to a deep pan, about 3 inches. You’ll want enough shortening so that the doughnuts float while cooking. Heat shortening to a temperature of 350 degrees. If you have a candy thermometer, great—I didn’t, and the doughnuts turned out fine. You just want a nice, hot oil bath in which to cook the doughnuts to a crispy light brown without burning them.
- WARNING: HOT OIL! Please do not burn your finger like I did. Carefully add a few doughnuts to the oil. Fry for about a minute, then turn the doughnut over. Continue frying for 30 to 60 seconds. Remove from skillet and place on a paper towel-lined plate to drain for a minute.
- Dip the top of the doughnuts into the glaze, then dip the doughnuts into the cinnamon sugar topping. I coated both sides of the doughnut with the cinnamon sugar because that’s how they do it at the orchard.
- Eat immediately while warm. Trust me. Just like the doughnuts from the orchard, these treats taste best fresh from the skillet. I fried a batch, then saved the remaining cut out dough in the freezer for morning. I thawed it for about 15 minutes, and we had fresh doughnuts for breakfast. It worked beautifully.
Make the doughnuts at home and skip the line. They’ll make you happy. I promise. (And it only took 30 minutes to clean the stove.)